Rapid Recap: Penn State 17, Northwestern 7


Joshua Sukoff/Daily Senior Staffer

Defensive back Rod Heard II readies for a play. Heard forced one of the Cats’ five takeaways on Saturday, but it wasn’t enough to knock off Penn State.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

In Northwestern’s first true road game of the season, the Wildcat defense showed that it can compete with some of the best offenses in the Big Ten. NU recorded a season-high five turnovers and held the No. 11 Nittany Lions to 17 points in rainy Happy Valley.

Instead of riding the defensive dominance to a statement win, the Cats (1-4, 1-1 Big Ten) fell flat on offense and saw their losing skid extended to four games in a 17-7 loss to Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten). Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski turned the ball over three times and completed just 15 of his 37 passes, while the NU run game had 31 yards to Penn State’s 223.

Like NU’s defense, we have five takeaways for you from today’s game:


  1. Rain, Penn State defense shut down Northwestern’s offense

NU suffered its worst offensive start of the season, wasting an opportunistic opening from its linebacking corps. Across NU’s first nine drives, the Penn State defense forced five three-and-outs, an interception off junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski and two Hilinski fumbles. The Cats didn’t record an offensive completion or first down until just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter, when Hilinski hit senior receiver Donny Navarro III for a 22-yard gain. 

The constant downpour was certainly a factor — especially on the mishandled snap — and Penn State’s defense lived up to its reputation, but in a game that lent itself to pounding the football with the ground game, NU averaged 1.1 yards per rush and couldn’t establish its rushing attack. The Cats’ passing game didn’t get going until late in the third quarter, when sophomore receiver Jacob Gill slipped past the Nittany Lion secondary and caught a Hilinski underthrow for NU’s first points. Even with the late push, the Cats didn’t score double-digit points for the first time this season and accumulated just 241 yards of offense.

  1. Wildcats’ defense makes big plays, but can’t slow No. 11 Penn State

Losing the turnover battle was a key reason behind the Cats’ September slump, and the defense answered the call by recording more takeaways in the first half (three) than it did in all three of the September games combined (two). The plays didn’t simply take advantage of Penn State miscues; NU’s defenders went after it and made highlight plays to turn momentum their way. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher hauled in a first-quarter interception of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford that withstood a video review, while big hits from defensive backs Garnett Hollis Jr. and Rod Heard II resulted in pivotal fumble recoveries. Hollis also jarred the bar loose on a Keyvone Lee rush in the third quarter for his second forced fumble of the game.

It didn’t matter. For NU’s defense to force five takeaways and watch the offense fail to score a single point off of them is as brutal as it gets. The defensive execution and tackling wasn’t perfect, but the Cats’ defense certainly showed up in Happy Valley and deserved better.

  1. Hilinski endures another rough outing in return to Big Ten play

One of the Cats’ most troubling trends, the regression of Hilinski’s play over the first four games, derailed NU’s upset hopes in the first half. The junior completed three of 11 first-half passes with two fumbles and an interception. The latter fumble, on NU’s final drive of the first half, stopped the Cats right before the red zone and prevented them from capitalizing on a Penn State fumble. The other two turnovers resulted in two Nittany Lions touchdowns.

Hilinski kept his composure late into the second half and led the Cats on 9- and 10- play drives that got NU deep into Nittany Lion territory. But after the Hilinski-Gill connection finished that first drive with the Cats’ first score, the second ended with a turnover on downs on the Penn State 1. The junior finished the rainy afternoon with a 15-37, 210-yard passing performance, two botched snaps and three turnovers.

  1. Fourth-down quarterback sneak backfires

One of NU’s most reliable plays has been Hilinski’s quarterback sneaks, which have been a go-to on fourth-and-short opportunities for the Cats this season. With under 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter and NU down by two possessions, coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian eschewed a field goal attempt that would have cut the deficit to seven and put the ball in Hilinski’s hands for a rush from the one-yard line. Hilinski lost his footing and the Cats’ 10-play, 74-yard drive ended just inches short from the goal line. NU also turned the ball over on downs in two of its next three drives.

  1. After wild weekend, NU still alive in Big Ten West

Cats fans who were scoreboard watching in the Big Ten West on Saturday afternoon still have reason to believe that NU can be frisky in what is one of the least predictable divisions in the sport. The Cats’ next opponent, Wisconsin, lost in blowout fashion to Illinois, 34-10, at home, and unranked Purdue replicated the feat by upsetting No. 21 Minnesota on the road, 20-10. Iowa did not look competitive in a 27-14 defeat to No. 4 Michigan, either. NU’s first Big Ten loss moves them into a five-way tie for first place in the division standings, meaning there’s still a lot to play for in the weeks ahead despite the four-game losing streak.

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